by alkjash10 min read26th Oct 20197 comments



If you brought a man with keen ears to the edge of the pit and dropped a quarter over exactly the right spot, you could count to eleven before he heard it hit the ground. If you next told the man that a sliver of sunlight was visible from the very bottom of said pit, he might have squinted at you skeptically. If you proceeded to say that the bowels of this same pit were inhabited by twenty-odd live human beings, he would certainly have slapped you across the side of the head and called you a shameless liar. But you wouldn’t have lied once.

The inhabitants of the pit – the pitfolk – were frail people, bone-pale from the perennial lack of sunlight, all taut skin wrapped about wan elbows. However they shifted their bodies to and fro, they were bound – as if by cowed by that measly sliver of sunlight – to walk hunched over, keeping their faces downcast.

Through the decades, the pitfolk developed an extraordinary black and white vision, as all they could see were the meager shadows which shifted around their ankles. From these faded images the pitfolk deduced the whole of their reality. This made for a rather miserable experience, but it did not stop the pitfolk from building an entire way of life about the dance of dim shadows – black silhouettes against grey stone – that was their everything.

Each day at noon, when the dim light against their backs shone brightest, the pitfolk gathered in a large circle with one tribe member or another in the center, and that chosen member would play out a long and complex dance with the long and dextrous fingers attached to his long and sinewy limbs. The whole circle would watch intently as the shadows cast from the dance leaped across the ground, swaying to a silent rhythm. The full performance, which lasted nearly two hours, had been passed down from parent to child as long as any living tribe member could remember, and probably longer. And although each generation brought into it their own unique flicks of the finger and twirls of the elbow, the dance remained remarkably unchanged through the years. As everyone knew, the shadow dance was the story of their tribe.

Of course, each tribe member was free to form their own opinion about what exactly that story was. By some miracle of memory the pitfolk retained the faintest inkling of the great goings-on in the outside world, and through this hint of a memory they interpreted the shadow dance. 

Some saw in the flapping of hand-shadows the wings of the great Father Bird, while others saw the flapping capes of the first men. Some thought the writhing finger-shadows on the ground represented a plague of snakes that would bring about the end of the world, while others saw them as the tongues of a purifying fire that would bring its redemption. Some thought it strange that the great savior had five heads, one shorter and bulkier than the others, while others believed the five heads actually represented five spirits in one body, one of them a pudgy child. All such disagreements existed, and many more, but as the pitfolk had no means of communication other than the shadow dance, it appeared to each of them as if everyone else agreed with their understanding of things. At least on one thing they did agree: that the shadow dance was the story of their tribe, and that story must be passed down.

The youngest of the tribe was a boy, not yet seven, whose name was Two-Crossed-Fingers – that was the way they made his shadow sign. Unlike the older tribe members, Two-Crossed-Fingers was still learning moves of the shadow dance. His elders had mostly calcified on their interpretations of the dance, and perhaps even began to bore of it after so many years of dialectic, but the boy was still wide-eyed with excitement, playing through each piece of the story in delighted confusion. It was his greatest dream to complete the shadow dance and take his place within the tribe, so he studied very hard and very long.

There were many points when Two-Crossed-Fingers became stuck on a motion that seemed impossible. To draw different shapes simultaneously with his two hands challenged his mind. To stretch his arms wide apart and swing round and round challenged his body. To watch the tendrils of darkness consume each other in terrifying awful motions challenged his heart. And as Two-Crossed-Fingers was especially young and frail, these challenges were especially hard on him. But nevertheless he persisted, practicing deep into the dark of night, and to his amazement he discovered a certain way of interpreting the shadow dance that made what seemed to be impossible motions easy.

When he saw the two different shapes he had to draw as the two sexes, two sides of the same humanity, that motion merged into one unified story.

When he saw the swinging of his arms as the collapsing of the great bond between people, its frantic energy became natural and effortless.

When he accepted the throwing of one hand into the other as the final sacrifice that saved the last remnants of humanity, his terror subsided and was replaced by inner peace.

Two-Crossed-Fingers basked in the feeling of these revelations, and there was no doubt in his mind that these were the one true interpretation of the shadow dance. He was a great deal impressed by the genius who had woven together a dance so that the truth itself would shine through its execution, and thus carry forever the story of his people through the ages. Each step he took brought him closer to this story, and closer to his place in the tribe. He had no reason to suspect that he, uniquely, was the only one who had felt the meaning of the dance. Two-Crossed-Fingers had no reason to suspect that, unlike him, all twenty-two other tribespeople were just going through the motions, and they each had their own clumsily patched-together notion of things.

The day finally came when Two-Crossed-Fingers was deemed ready to perform. He twirled into the center of the ring just before noon, flush with excitement yet oddly composed. Many years had already been spent on this journey, but it was just the beginning. Two-Crossed-Fingers planned to spend many yet sharing the joy of the dance with his people. They had so few joys.

Just as the boy threw his hands out in opposite shapes to mime the courtship dance of man and woman, all of the other pitfolk heard a strange and shocking sound.

You must know that no sounds had been heard or uttered down here for a very long time.

It was a very weak scratching sound that seemed to carry down the pit from a great distance above, and it slowly grew more and more insistent. Bits of dirt and rubble began to tumble down into the pit, scaring what little color there was out of the downcast faces of the pitfolk. Nobody moved, nor blinked, nor paid any attention to anything except the growing noise.

Nobody except for the dancing boy in the center, who was so entranced by his moment that he didn’t notice the new stimuli.

The scratching sounds and falling rubble built into a crescendo, until even Two-Crossed-Fingers couldn’t ignore them, but the boy, despite his shock, continued to dance. Who could guess what went through his mind at that time? Whatever it was, he knew that the shadow dance, once initiated, must continue to completion.

A great Crack! was heard, reverberating around the cavern, and suddenly existence itself shattered – or so it seemed to the pitfolk. A great boulder had been dislodged from the opening of the pit, and sunlight poured in at an intensity they had never before experienced. The light was blinding.

Their eyes watered, their knees buckled, and they all knew that the end was nigh. But Two-Crossed-Fingers continued to dance the bond between good and evil unfurling into chaos. If his eyes began to bleed as he sped up his frantic motions, he did not seem to notice. The boy was possessed by a singular purpose – to retell the story of his tribe one final time.

Faster and faster he danced until the shadows made only a blur on the ground, telling no story at all except in the boy’s mind’s eye. One by one the muscles in his body gave way, but still he whirled. If anyone had stopped to ask him why he bothered dancing as the world fell apart, that single note of confusion might have broken his trance. But no one paid him any mind, so no stray thoughts entered the boy’s head, so Two-Crossed-Fingers danced to the very end. 

As the final sacrifice was thrown into the purifying fire to save humanity from its ultimate doom, he let out a long breath of relief. 

Then everything went white.


When we opened up the pit, we couldn’t believe our eyes. The records clearly showed that a mining accident had sealed the shaft nearly two hundred years ago, and yet when we dug down to its depths, we discovered twenty-three living human beings, cringing and frightened in a circle, thin as sticks. I’m proud to say that the team took action rapidly and without hesitation, climbing back up with the pit people strapped to their backs. We herded them like frightened sheep into our trucks, and soon had them in the local hospital.

What I remember most from that day was one little boy who latched onto me with a vice-like grip. He shook up and down, clearly frightened out of his wits, and a smear of blood ran down the side of his cheek. Yet still there was a line of defiance in his brow.

The mission itself had to continue, but a few of us volunteered to stay behind with the pit people and take care of their rehabilitation, as the hospital was understaffed for this kind of work. It took many months of intensive care to nurse the pit people back to health. None of them knew any spoken language, but they were surprisingly quick studies, and the programs worked as well as could be expected. Eventually they were able to tell us in simple words their unbelievable tale –  that all of them, down to the oldest man, had lived in the pit since birth, and never known any other life.

We tried our best to help the pit people, but it was difficult, for they had been down there so very long. What kept us going was how grateful they were, and they were very expressive of their gratitude with their long, bony limbs. The pit people all agreed that it had been a living nightmare down there in the pit, surviving in some demi-state between life and unlife. The plainest things – the green of grass, the ripples on pondwater, the crunch of tires against gravel – brought tears of ecstasy to their eyes.

There was one exception: the youngest among them, a boy who couldn’t have been more than eight years old. The same boy who had left such an impression on me that very first day.

When I was tasked to observe him, I found the boy was grateful and agreeable, but not extraordinarily so. He smiled a distant smile and made odd motions with his arms, often waving his crossed fingers at me as if he was about to lie. But he refused to learn to speak.

One day, he pulled me away from my lunch break and into his tent. The boy turned the lamp off so that only a thin sliver of light made it through the flap, and proceeded to do the strangest little dance. Even in the darkness, it was such a grotesque and unnatural series of motions to my eyes, joints bent in all the wrong angles, that I reflexively cast my eyes away. 

I think this offended him, and he stopped dead in his tracks. 

Ever since that day, he ignored me and all the other staff entirely, despite my best efforts to help him open up. The boy had no interest in the toys and games that fascinated other children.

Even so, I held out hope that something would change.


One chilly winter morning some weeks later, I was woken up by a nurse to learn that the boy had gone missing. There was no trace of him around the camp, and a long rope ladder had disappeared with him.

Propelled by a sinking feeling in my stomach, I jumped into my truck and quickly drove my way back to the opening of the pit where we first found them. Just as I suspected, a rope ladder fell into the darkness, its ends amateurishly looped around a tree stump nearby.

After refastening the rope properly, I descended down the ladder, too anxious to go back for proper protective gear. I knew that the boy was at the bottom of the pit, and part of me was already rehearsing for what I would do when I found him. Would I comfort him, or be cross? Would I have to take him back by force?

As I climbed down, the sounds of life retreated into the distance and the light above faded to a tiny point, but still the bottom was nowhere in sight. I felt as if I was descending into another plane, where time and space and smell and taste all faded into metaphor.

Finally, my boots hit solid ground. Using my smartphone as a makeshift flashlight, I discovered the same large cavern that we initially found the pit people in. It was about sixty feet across, and almost perfectly circular. The cold stone stretched out flat and empty, devoid of any sign that dozens of people had ever spent their lives here. 

To my surprise, there was not even a single trace of the boy.

I stood still for a moment, drinking in the emptiness. In the corner of my eye, the shadows on the ground seemed to dance and cavort gracefully, but when I turned to stare at them they steadied. 

It must have been the unsteadiness of my hands.

Another silhouette flitted across my peripheral vision, but when I turned, there was again nothing.

I was unsettled.

I am not a claustrophobic man, but the emptiness, the silence, and the chill in the air made it unbearable to stay too long. All thoughts of the boy disappeared from my mind.

As soon as my limbs recovered I clambered back up the rope ladder as fast as they would take me, out of this plane of demi-life. The trip upwards seemed to take twice as long as the trip down, and my limbs almost gave way before I made it.

After returning to the land of the living, I thought for a moment to pull up the rope ladder and take it with me.

In the end, I decided against it.


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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:25 PM

Found this video and it reminded me of this story:

Nice story. Do you feel like the boy, the elders, or the scientists?

If I had to say (and this is only a slice of the story), I am the boy and the scientists (or whatever they are) are the rationality community. Rationality showed me light, taught me how to seek truth, saved me from destructive biases. Many others in my position dropped their "conventional" lives and moved to Berkeley/started working on EA or AI Risk. But me - after my interaction with rationality - I turned away from the community to continue grad school and pursue my pure mathematics with renewed vigor.

I am happy for you. :)

I enjoyed this :) Your writing in general has been very fun.

He had no reason to suspect that he, uniquely, was the only one who had felt the meaning of the dance. Two-Crossed-Fingers had no reason to suspect that, unlike him, all twenty-two other tribespeople were just going through the motions, and they each had their own clumsily patched-together notion of things.

When I first read this, I read it as an unreliable narrative describing what the boy would think if he knew what the other tribespeople interpreted the dance (ie, "I know the true meaning! Everyone else is wrong!").
But the way that the boy does not become grateful when rescued from the pit suggests, in some ways, there's more to this.

The boy turned the lamp off so that only a thin sliver of light made it through the flap, and proceeded to do the strangest little dance. Even in the darkness, it was such a grotesque and unnatural series of motions to my eyes, joints bent in all the wrong angles, that I reflexively cast my eyes away.

The dance is unnatural, yes. And life in the pit is actually bad. And this boy, the youngest, happens to be more separated from the world beyond the pit than any others--another generation removed. Maybe this was the point at there was nothing left of the world beyond the pit, and the boy's brain had no residue of that world to latch onto. So instead, it contorted into the best shape that fit the pit--a shape that could barely fit into the world beyond it.

In the context of ethics, it's interesting to think about the ways that our minds grow into the shape of our environments and its especially interesting to think about the way adversarial environments can trap our minds in the wrong shapes--leaving us with perverse value systems. You could argue that ethics are subjective but that's not the point. The boy could've had a better life outside the pit had his mind been capable of understanding that possibility than even life inside the pit with a mind that had been shaped to fit it. Reminds me a little bit of Three Worlds Collide in that way. It kind of makes sense--this is also a first contact story, in a way.

I don't think I got anything out of reading this. Maybe that means it's not for me, or that what it has to give, I already have, or that what it has given me is subtle and I will not know its value until later.

Whichever it is, it is a mark of bad writing to be this hard to evaluate. You cannot form a productive community of recommendation around writing that has this quality.

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